Discordant notes

It may seem strange to associate the idea of conflict with someone as silver-haired, mild-mannered and ever-smiling as Dave Brubeck, whose music is a long slow sip from an old-fashioned glass of expensive whisky, but for me it has always been thus. Brubeck's art has tended, intentionally or not, to revolve around a constellation of warzones; political, social and artistic whirpools of conflict in the face of which conventions collapse. Perhaps that is why he is so hard to slot as a musician — take a look at all the obituaries doing the rounds, and the words "convention-defying", "pioneering" and "deceptively complex" leap out at you. See? Already he's being difficult.

The first great warzone in the Brubeck legend was, of course, World War II, when he was sent to Europe as a soldier in Patton's Third Army and started running one of the first interracial army bands (The Wolfpack), and where his superior officer, a jazz fan, kept intervening to stop him from being sent to the front to become cannon fodder. It was in Europe, 1944, that he met Paul Desmond, who went on to become the lyrical counterpoint to his anvil-like playing of blocks of chords. And thus was born perhaps the sweetest-sounding collaboration in all of jazz, amidst the blood and the bombs of the mother of all wars.

When Brubeck returned to the US, he started studying fugue and orchestration with the French modernist composer Darius Milhaud, and even took some classes at UCLA with Arnold Schoenberg (who had moved to California in 1934 to escape Nazism). Once more, conflict followed — Schoenberg's was a tonality of strict function, and he wanted each note to have a definite purpose, but Brubeck preferred to let them run wild, wanting to allow the theme to reject some and discard others in its own time. This willingness to make mistakes and find variation and lyricism in these mistakes began to inform much of Brubeck's playing from the late 1940s on.

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